Don’t Deny Girls the Evolutionary Wisdom of Fairy-Tales and Princesses

Psychologist Joyce Benenson, who researches sex differences, traces women’s evolved tendency to opt for indirectness – in both competition and communication – to a need to avoid physical altercation, either with men or other women. This strategy would have allowed ancestral women to protect their more fragile female reproductive machinery and to fulfill their roles as the primary caretaker for any children they might have.

Sure, today, a woman can protect herself against even the biggest, scariest intruder with a gun or a taser – but that’s not what our genes are telling us. We’re living in modern times with an antique psychological operating system – adapted for the mating and survival problems of ancestral humans. It’s often at a mismatch with our current environment.

Understanding this evolutionary mismatch helps women get why it’s sometimes hard for them to speak up for themselves – to be direct and assertive. And identifying this as a problem handed them by evolution can help them override their reluctance – assert themselves, despite what feels “natural.” Additionally, an evolutionary understanding of female competition can help women find other women’s cruelty to them less mystifying. This, in turn, allows them to take such abuse less personally than if they buy into the myth of female society as one big supportive sisterhood.

Such myths have roots in academia. Academic feminists typically contend that culture alone is responsible for behavior. If pressed, they’ll concede to some biological sex differences – but only below the neck. They deny that there could be psychological differences that evolved out of the physiological differences – and never mind all the evidence.

For example, evolutionary psychologists David Buss and David Schmitt explain – per surveys across cultures – that men and women evolved to have conflicting “sexual strategies.” In general, “a long-term mating strategy” (commitment-seeking) would be optimal for women and a “short-term mating strategy” (the “hit it and quit it” model) would be optimal for men. (Guess which model is championed in princess movies?)

In almost all species, it’s the female that gets pregnant and stuck with mouths to feed. So human women – like most females in other species – evolved to seek high-status male partners with an ability and willingness to invest.

This evolutionary imperative is supported by women’s emotions, which anthropologist John Marshall Townsend explains, “act as an alarm system that urges women to test and evaluate investment and remedy deficiencies even when they try to be indifferent to investment.” In Townsend’s research, even when women wanted nothing but a one-time hookup with a guy, they often were surprised to wake up with worries like “Does he care about me?” and “Is sex all he was after?”

In other words, the allure of “princess culture” was created by evolution, not Disney. Over countless generations, our female ancestors most likely to have children who survived to pass on their genes were those whose emotions pushed them to hold out for commitment from a high status man – the hunter-gatherer version of that rich, hunky prince. A prince is a man who could have any woman, but – very importantly – he’s bewitched by our girl, the modest but beautiful scullery maid. A man “bewitched” (or, in contemporary terms, “in love”) is a man less likely to stray – so the princess story is actually a commitment fantasy.

Because of this, princess films can be the perfect foundation for parents of teen girls to have conversations about the realities of evolved female emotions in the mating sphere. A young woman who’s been schooled (in simple terms) about evolutionary psychology is less likely to behave in ways that will leave her miserable – understanding that being “sexually liberated” might not make her emotionally liberated enough to have happy hookups with a string of Tinder randos.

As for the notion that watching classic princess films could be toxic to a girl’s ambition, let’s be real. Girls are being sent in droves to coding camp and are bombarded with slogans like “The future is female!” And young women – young women who grew up with princess films – now significantly outpace young men in college enrollment.

Children aren’t idiots. They know that talking mirrors and pumpkins that Uber a girl to the royal prom aren’t real, and they aren’t having their autonomy brainwashed away by feature-length cartoons – just as none of us dropped anvils on the neighbor kids after watching Road Runner. Ultimately, these bans of princess movies are really about what’s psychologically soothing for the parents, not what’s good for children. Preventing children from watching princess films and other fantasy kid fare gives parents the illusion of control, the illusion that they’re doing something meaningful and protective for their children.

Author and activist Lenore Skenazy urges parents to go “free range” – give their kids healthy independence, such as by letting them ride their bikes around the neighborhood without being accompanied by a rent-a-mercenary. I suggest parents also go psychologically free range. This means allowing children to watch classic Disney films instead of giving in to the ridiculous panic that their daughters will start seeing “princess” as a career option.

Stories give us insight into successful human behavior; they don’t turn us into fleshy robots who act exactly as the characters do. Understanding this is essential, because if we instead succumb to the current paranoia, we’ll have to remove much of the fiction from the high school curriculum – lest, say, Edgar Allan Poe’s Tell-Tale Heart lead yet another generation of young readers to murder their roommates, cut them up, and stash them under the floorboards.

Amy Alkon sneers at “self-help” books and instead writes “science help” – translating research from across scientific disciplines into highly practical advice. Her new science-based book is Unf*ckology: A Field Guide to Living with Guts and Confidence. Follow Amy Alkon on Twitter at @amyalkon.